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question Your contention that “the absolute and phenomena” are “exactly the same thing” but “observed subjectively from a different perspective” is reminiscent of Japanese Tendai’s hongaku thought, the chief characteristic of which is world-affirmation (genjitsu kotei). The major problematic of this doctrine, as you are aware, is that identity (advaya) amounts to the equivocation of phenomena with enlightenment – a quasi-pantheism. On the other hand, some Buddhists argue that identity takes place at the level of final enlightenment, sub specie aeternitatis. After a careful reading of your letters, I must assume that the so-called advayic identity of “absolute and phenomena” takes place at a phenomenal level for you, which I take is your position. By analogy, you are postulating that grasses and trees realize Buddhahood because of the identity (advaya) of subject and its environment. Yet it is easy to see that “grasses and trees” remain such as the environment remains such, neither losing its separate identity. How therefore is this identity, seems puzzling? In what way are even the grasses and trees identical? How is the sky identical with the trees and so on? I apologize if I am not making myself very clear. I enjoy our correspondence. We are like two old fools playing chess in the park!

answer Your closing remark, which made us laugh very much over here, is very zenny and almost like a haiku. Two old fools playing chess in the park, indeed! We are very grateful for your pleasant and forthcoming attitude. We are also enjoying this correspondence very much.

Tendai Buddhism, you might agree, risks becoming in the end, as a result of the exaggerated syncretistic zeal of its followers, no more than a well-meant ontological fantasy. The non-dual and life-affirming philosophy and way of life that we call Advayavada Buddhism is, on the other hand, purely an epistemological standpoint. In accordance with the doctrine of shunyata all distinctions are understood to be fundamentally illusory and artificial – dualisms as Nirvana and Samsara, or absolute and phenomena, are revealed as figments of our imagination. The term advaya in Advayavada means not-two in the sense of knowing that objectively there are not two realities nor two conditions or aspects of reality. When we say that Samsara and Nirvana are the same thing, we do not mean that they are identical in the sense of being two-but-the-same, as is meant by the Hindu term advaita, but that they are simply not two, that they are very literally one-and-the-same thing: rather simply put, Samsara is the name we give to reality as experienced conventionally and Nirvana is the name we give to the same one reality but as experienced by the fully enlightened mind – this identity is, indeed, also the third truth of basic Tendai philosophy.

The tendency to view reality as two is a result of our fundamental ignorance of the true nature of reality, as professor Murti writes in The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The Spinozean expression sub specie aeternitatis is frequently used by Buddhists to indicate that we would see for ourselves that there are not two realities if we were able to view existence from the completely non-conceptual standpoint of eternity. We can however ascertain rightnow, as indeed Madhyamaka proves, that there is no basis whatsoever to suppose that besides phenomena there is a second, transcendent and, moreover, superior reality. The specific purpose of Advayavada Buddhism, which literally means not-two-ism, is to actively propound the conclusions of Madhyamaka philosophy in this respect. Your grasses and trees are indeed two of the many different manifestations of vegetable life. Advayavada Buddhism does not maintain that they are identical phenomena; what Advayavada Buddhism maintains is that there is no reason at all to believe that there is a further second reality, invisible to the eye, parallel to these life forms or any other phenomena. In Advayavada Buddhism there are no other two than part and whole, numerator and denominator.

There are not two realities, but there are, Madhyamaka teaches, two ways of seeing, of experiencing, of understanding the one reality: there are two truths, conventional everyday truth (samvriti-satya) and ultimate truth (paramartha-satya). In our everyday application of conventional truth, though we are aware of the intrinsic emptiness of all dharmas or phenomena since we know that all things are interdependently arisen and exist conceptually only by virtue of our idea of them or of their alleged opposite, we nevertheless do take into account and make use of the relative, conceptual aspects of phenomena in our commonplace interaction with other sentient beings and with our environment. As a matter of fact, the Noble Eightfold Path operates throughout exclusively at the level of conventional truth. As we advance along the Buddha’s Middle Way responding to his promise of Nirvana by ridding ourselves of the so-called ten fetters (dasha-, dasasamyojana) that restrict us to Samsara, the fallacies in our perception of Samsara are progressively transformed, purified first into conventional truth, and it is through conventional truth that we shall eventually come to understand the non-conceptual import of ultimate truth. The dialectic of Madhyamaka, with its exhaustive analysis of the nature of reality, indeed takes place at the level of conventional truth. By ultimate truth is meant our awareness of the underlying field of experience where all phenomena stripped of their relative aspects are known to happen: it is our insight into the void beyond all concepts. This field of experience where the real events are known to take place is that of non-dual emptiness, advayata, shunyata, the realm of prajña, non-dual, contentless intuition. To experience existence at this level, which we can truly say lies between the notions of being and non-being, is nothing less than Nirvana.

question What are those ten fetters you just mentioned?

answer In Advayavada Buddhism, the ten samyojana or fetters that restrict us to samsaric life are: 1) belief in the self, 2) scepticism regarding the Path, 3) attachment to rituals, 4) partiality for certain things, 5) prejudice against certain things, 6) clinging to physical life, 7) hope of a hereafter, eight) conceit and pride, 9) intolerance and irritability, and 10) the last remnants of our ignorance.

question Do I count three realms of experience in your description of the dvaya-satya doctrine: Samsara, conventional truth, and ultimate truth or Nirvana (more or less along the lines of the three kinds of knowledge in Spinoza: opinion, reason and intuition)?

answer Though Nagarjuna’s dvaya-satya teaching is very much a two-truths doctrine, as its Sanskrit name indicates, some aspects are comparable to Spinoza’s teaching. Our application in Advayavada Buddhism of this essential Madhyamika doctrine is as follows: Samsara is to experience the phenomenal world at the level of conventional everyday truth (samvriti-satya). However, our initial perception of the phenomenal world normally contains many fallacies (mithyasamvriti) and the conversion of these fallacies into true conventional truth (tathyasamvriti), by following the Noble Eightfold Path, occurs entirely within the realm of Samsara. At the same time the fetters that restrict us to Samsara are broken one by one. Ideally, our perception of Samsara becomes in the end wholly pure conventional truth, whilst all ten of the restraining fetters have also been shattered along the way. Now, it is as a result of this thorough purification of our perception of the phenomenal world, at the level of conventional truth, that we shall come to understand the significance of ultimate truth. Ultimate truth (paramartha-satya) is truth divested of all our preconceptions, including eventually those expressed here. Nirvana is to understand and experience the one phenomenal world at this level of ultimate truth – to experience the phenomenal world thus, brings about the complete extinction (nirodha) of all suffering (duhkha, dukkha) as a direct result of our full reconciliation with reality as it truly is. The fully liberated person has continually at his or her disposal, then, two truths: the everyday conventional truth of the phenomenal world and the ultimate truth of its pure, unblemished becoming, its Emptiness.

Hua-yen is difficult to summarize (Cook)

Hua-yen is difficult to summarize (from Fa-tsang’s Brief Commentary, by Francis H. Cook, in Mahayana Buddhist Meditation, edited by Minoru Kiyota, 1978, Delhi 1991)

Hua-yen totalism is difficult to summarize briefly. The concrete world “out there” is a perfect fusion of the phenomenal shih and absolute li, of form se and emptiness k’ung. To say that something is empty is to say that it lacks any kind of self-existence (svabhava), and while the external world appears to be divided into many separate entities, each with a distinct form and function, all are alike empty of any substance or essence which would make them truly distinct and independent. Thus, to speak of the static relationship between things, things can be said to be essentially identical, i.e. empty of self-existence. However, this emptiness is never found apart from concrete reality, apart from “form”, to use the sutra terminology; emptiness is expressed in forms, and these forms are seen as exerting causal influences on each other. Thus to speak of their dynamic relationship, things can be said to be interdependent. Now, while it may seem strange to speak of a cosmos in which all things are identical and interdependent, these two relationships are nothing but other ways of saying that everything is empty, sarvam shunyam.

The result of this sort of analysis of the mode of being of the dharmadhatu is a de-emphasis of the differences between things and an emphasis on seeing being in its totality. Distinctions are submerged, hierarchies disappear, past, present, and future merge, and in this vast organism of interdependent parts, any part acts simultaneously as cause and effect. There is, then, a very intimate relationship between any one individual and all other individuals (or the totality). Because each and all other individuals are lacking in self-existence and have their being purely through intercausality, the whole is dependent on the part, because without the part, there can be no whole. (It must be remembered that each part has this relationship to the whole simultaneously.) At the same time, however, the part has not existence and no meaning outside the context of the totality, because is is a part of the whole. Thus, the part creates the whole and the whole creates the part, in a view of existence which Hua-yen calls fa-chieh yuan-ch’i or the interdependent origination of the cosmos (in Sanskrit dharmadhatu pratityasamutpada). Along with this interdependence, there is a relationship of essential identity among the parts of the whole.

The final consequence of this view of being is a doctrine of the completely free interfusion, or interpenetration, of the parts in the whole, and this is the distinctively Hua-yen doctrine of shih shih wu-ai, the non-impediment of a thing with any other thing. For instance, though the present is the present, because of the principle of interdependence (emptiness), the present includes past and future, which remain past and future. Or, to give another example, the practices of the boddhisattva can rightly be seen as the cause of Buddhahood-effect, but because of emptiness, they can be seen as result, because they too, in their emptiness, are merely manifestations of the Buddha [the whole]. If, as Hua-yen claims, the dharmadhatu is the body of Vairocana, where can I not find the Buddha? Everything, in fact, in the Hua-yen cosmos is worthy of respect and honor, because everything manifests the totality of being and reality.

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question You say that ‘man’s observance of the five fundamental precepts in his daily life gives him the moral strength required to embark upon the Buddha’s Middle Way…’ I think you’ve missed the point of the precepts. These are artificial, man-made rules. In actuality, humans can never fully abide by those rules. I personally think that’s why the Buddha enjoined his disciples to follow them. To vow to follow those precepts is to become a living koan. The symbol of the path to enlightenment is a flower, not a ledger of morality. Just ask Mahakashyapa. What is the morality of a flower?

answer Buddhism is a highly ethical teaching and way of life for human beings that is man-made in its entirety like any other. There is, in our view, no such thing as divine law – the golden rule is perfectly rational. Traditionally, to become a lay Buddhist one voluntarily takes refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and undertakes to comply with at least the first five of the Buddhist precepts. The Five Precepts (pañca-sila, pancha-shila, pansil) are the minimum moral obligations a lay Buddhist freely takes upon him or herself. The precise interpretation of these precepts aside for the moment, it is universally agreed that people who wantonly kill, steal, maybe molest children, cheat and deceive, or enjoy getting drunk or stoned, need not do the effort to embark on the Buddha’s Middle Way until they have first cleaned up their act. Now, as for their exact interpretation, they comprise ‘not only minimal morality, but basic morality capable of many degrees of fulfillment’ (Winston L. King). Whether, for instance, the first precept also forbids meat-eating, whether the third precept forbids alternative sexual practices like e.g. swinging, or whether the fifth precept forbids all alcoholic beverages and drugs or just the getting intoxicated as some maintain, this is therefore as well our own responsibility. One must only not lose sight of the underlying reason for these fundamental voluntary precepts, which is to become moral individuals able, as such, to follow the Noble Eightfold Path to eliminate existential suffering, angst and regret from our lives.

This might be as good a place as any to warn that for many people social drinking is a potential source of much future suffering. Bear in mind in this context the persistent irrational taboo of not admitting to alcohol abuse by ourselves or those close to us. (cf. Nucleus accumbens [Nacc] research)

question How can one beat alcoholism?

answer One can certainly fully neutralize alcohol addiction by stopping to drink alcoholic beverages altogether, one day at the time, with the help of (a) your GP and (b) a personal psychological coach or counsellor, and (c) by joining a reputable support group to help you develop the necessary emotional counterpunch. The Noble Eightfold Path provides a very appropriate overall training to beat this serious biopsychosocial [BPS] disease.

question I am a secondary school teacher and am creating a poster for display in class about the five precepts of Buddhism but have a problem simplifying the precept about abstaining from sexual misconduct into child friendly words.

answer Maybe you could say ‘To abstain from loveless [or hurtful] sexual conduct.’ Though in our opinion the words ‘to abstain from sexual misconduct’ are well to the point and cannot really be considered teenager unfriendly anymore in our day and age. Frank debate of this precept in a secondary school classroom is, moreover, an excellent and very timely opportunity to also explain the dangers of unprotected sex. It is in the safety of their own homes, however, that youngsters ought to unhibitedly learn most about their budding sexuality.

In order to help young people to later become balanced individuals the three basic aspects of a person (the physiological-sexual, the social-spiritual, and the economic-creative) must be developed equally.

question What is your position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage?

answer Small homosexual minorities are a biological fact in all societies. As for same-sex alliances, these belong, in our view, to the sphere of civil partnerships, cohabitation, cohousing, communes, temporary and plural marriages, sibling cohabitation, and other living groups, and much must still be done everywhere to improve all pertinent fiscal, social security, housing and inheritance legislation to facilitate such groups.

For that matter, divorce rates and the incidence of infidelity and domestic violence clearly show that the traditional (heterosexual and monogamous) marriage-for-life is not really the conclusive social system. To start with, it does not take into account obvious evolutionary differences between the sexual drive of men and women. Also, current divorce legislation with respect to the division of marital property, alimony, child support and visiting rights, and the like, is often unfair even in developed societies. (cf. serial monogamy, polygamy)

question In your own view, is nonprocreative sex good or bad?

answer Although there is in principle nothing at all wrong with enjoying consensual sex in its manifold forms, it nevertheless presents a persistent ethical difficulty in most societies, often with very serious psychological and behavioral repercussions. We believe, particularly, that healthy sexual relations can and should be honest and aboveboard vis-a-vis everybody concerned. Tantric sexual techniques can be recommended by us as liberating and enriching. “Make love, not war” remains, in our view, a very valid adage.

The Three Poisons

akushala, akusala (Skt.) karmically unwholesome; the three evil or unwholesome roots (akushala-mulas) are: greed (lobha) or craving, depicted as a red cock; anger or hatred (dvesha), depicted as a green snake; and delusion (moha) arising from ignorance or foolishness, depicted as a black pig. Also called the three afflictions, fires or poisons.

The Whole of Things (De Dijn)

The Whole of Things (from Metaphysics as Ethics, by Herman De Dijn, in God and Nature: Spinoza’s Metaphysics, edited by Yirmiyahu Yovel, Leiden 1991) In Spinoza’s physics, the fundamental categories are the “common notions” and the general laws they imply concerning the nature and interrelations of parts. At most, one gets insight into the space-time continuum of all the parts and the law of the conservation of energy. In his metaphysics, however, the whole is identified as an infinite, sempiternal Whole, which is but an infinite mode of the divine substance. The whole, studied in physics by examining its parts, is interpreted in metaphysics as having not only a “surface” dimension (the whole constituted by the parts), but also a dimension of “depth”, the infinite substance which underlies each of the individual parts as well as the whole. As Natura naturata, the whole can thus be seen to depend radically on substance or Natura naturans, God or substance being at the same time immanent and transcendent.

What is affirmed of God in Spinoza’s rationalistic metaphysics is basically that only God or Nature deserves to be called substance, causa sui, free and eternal – all names which we undeservedly give to ourselves in our anthropocentric conceit. In applying these names to Nature as a substantive whole, Spinoza somehow “individualizes” the whole of things in which we live; this proves to be very important in the relationship between metaphysics and intuitive knowledge. In his metaphysical treatises, Spinoza shows – in the light of the objectifying insights of metaphysics and physics – how to reinterpret the old ethico-religious and metaphysical notions and problems such as God, Providence, mind and body, intellect and will, rationality, freedom, immortality. There interpretation should ensure that all traces of anthropocentrism disappear. Yet, Spinoza was well aware that metaphysics, though for him a strictly cognitive project using the one scientific method, mos geometricus, had to be relevant to the search for salvation. As the continuation and the explication of the anti-anthropocentrism already present in the scientific attitude, this cognitive project was of direct relevance to the problem of salvation. Spinoza was aware that a kind of pedagogical steering of the cognitive project was necessary to arrive at the ultimate aim – salvation through contemplation – as quickly as possible: “I pass now to explaining those things which must necessarily follow from the essence of God, or [sive] the infinite and eternal Being – not, indeed, all of them …, but only those that can lead us, by the hand, as it were, to the knowledge of the human Mind and its highest blessedness” (EIIpref). This guidance of the project leads to the development of a human science in which man objectively understands himself as truly a mode of substance, and to the elaboration of a scientific ethics.

A true part of the whole

John Willemsens’ favourite definition of the Truth is that by Shree Rajneesh, contained in a 1985 letter to him from Rajneeshpuram: “Beloved John, I talk about the truth as joy in the heart; it has nothing to do with logic, nothing to do with philosophy; it has something to do with a transformation of your innermost core, when your very being starts throbbing, pulsating, in tune with existence, when there is no discord between you and the whole, when you are so synchronized with the whole that you are no more but only the whole is.” Also the purpose of Advayavada Buddhism is to help us to become a true part of the whole.

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question Diana St. Ruth writes the following in Tricycle: When one follows what is right according to one’s heart and good sense, when wisdom and compassion become real, not contrived, the way of heaven manifests beneath one’s feet. That is the way of liberation from suffering and the realization of genuine happiness.

answer Yes, that’s right. This is what in Advayavada Buddhism we call ‘reconciliation with Buddha-nature’. In Buddhism to follow ‘what is right’ means to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. It is necessary for us to follow the Path to realize what Buddha-nature is, for the way of heaven to manifest, as St. Ruth says. The Path is an ongoing reflexion at the level of our personal lives of wondrous overall existence becoming over time. In Advayavada Buddhism the Path is moreover seen, not as a means to become something in the future, but as the way to become as something rightaway in the herenow. The Eightfold Path is seen as the way to become oneself herenow as existence becoming over time now in its overall right direction; it is by becoming herenow as the whole of existence as it is beyond our commonly limited and biased personal experience of it, that we free ourselves from suffering and realize genuine happiness. Nirvana is when we experience our own existence as being completely in harmony with existence as a whole becoming over time – Nirvana is the ultimate reconciliation with his or her Buddha-nature achievable by man.

question How do you know that existence becomes over time ‘in the right direction’, as you say?

answer Firstly, we must agree that wondrous overall existence cannot, by definition, but be just right as it is and, secondly, that the objective of the Middle Way devoid of extremes, propounded by the Buddha as the correct existential attitude, must be to reconnect and reconcile us with existence as a whole – we can safely assume that the Buddha did not teach that there were two sets of rules at play, one for existence and one for its ‘by-product’ people! Therefore, because, in other words, the dharma of the part is not different from the Dharma of the whole, the Buddha’s Middle Way, in its dynamic Eightfold Path form, must be understood as an ongoing reflexion at the level of our personal lives of wondrous overall existence becoming over time. Now, as the Eightfold Path leads us towards better and better, it follows, inductively if you will, that, expressed purely in human terms, existence as a whole progresses over time as well. By the same logic, it also becomes quite clear that, inversely, we experience as good, right or wholesome, indeed as progress, those events which are in agreement with the overall pattern and direction of existence, that it is for this reason that they are experienced thus.

question We also have meditated and taught on many of these subjects but use different terminology. As an example you use the term ‘ever better’ and we use the term ‘more beautiful’. We do this because each person has an innate sense of what is ‘more beautiful’. You do not think about beauty, it simply is known. ‘Better’ is a term that requires the intellectual body to analyze two things based on a reference standard. For what purpose or state of being is it better? What makes the time of the plague in Europe ever better than classical Greek civilization?

answer To understand Advayavada Buddhism it is necessary to accept in the first place the preeminence of wondrous overall existence over mankind and that existence cannot, by definition, be anything but just right as it is. Secondly, that the objective of the Middle Way, being the correct existential attitude expounded by the Buddha, is the abandonment of all fixed views and to reconnect and reconcile us with wondrous overall existence – indeed, that in its dynamic Eightfold Path form, the Middle Way is an ongoing reflexion at the level of our personal lives of wondrous overall existence becoming over time. Now, as the Eightfold Path leads us towards better and better, it follows, inductively if you will, that, in human terms, existence as a whole becomes over time towards better and better as well. Inversely, we experience as good, right or wholesome those events which are in agreement with the overall indifferent pattern and direction of existence – it is for this reason that they are experienced thus. The reference standard, you see, is wondrous overall existence. It is not mankind, with its various civilizations and plagues, let alone, however well intentioned, our subjective sense of relative beauty.

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question As a Christian moral philosopher, I find very obvious evidence of sin entering the subconscious minds of humans as habits of thoughts and actions which become psychologically conditioned over time with positive reinforcements causing humans to do destructive things which are not rational. Buddhists of course do not see any such problem. That nihilism is not credible, and it promotes the problem instead of overcoming it.

answer Advayavada Buddhism maintains that by following a Path such as the Middle Way as taught by us one is able to return to the fold of an overall existence which, expressed purely in terms of human perception and experience, is undeniably sequential and dynamic in the sense of ever becoming better than before. It is an extraordinary teaching, with enormous societal implications, because the Buddhist Path is, of course, applicable, not only to individuals as you and I, but to societies as well. As things stand now, however, humanity lacks the qualities required to govern itself properly, and this fact is at present very much aggravated by the prevailing dumbing-down tendency undermining the entire Western world.

question Is it not quite apparent that there is a sin problem which is not being solved – in Buddhism as well as every place else?

answer The shambles humanity is in is, indeed, the result of sin and ignorance. The recurrence of genocide is particularly sad and disappointing. But we must be careful not to become a carrier of sin and part of the problem ourselves by refusing to place our trust in the whole, by whatever name you wish to identify it, and in the resilient natural goodness of our Buddha-nature – the major religions and beliefs, which cynically cultivate and live off the failings of humanity, including their own, are unfortunately on the rise again. Our own clear and important message and invocation is instead one of reconciliation with the wonders of overall existence. Nirvana, which is there for all, is indeed when we experience our own existence in the present moment as being completely in tune with existence as a whole becoming over time now in its right direction – the total extinction of all suffering is a direct result of our full reconciliation with reality as it truly is beyond our commonly limited and biased, and all too often sadly deluded, personal experience of it.

question I’m curious to know how dependent origination, pratityasamutpada, fits in with your idea of progress as the fourth sign of being.

answer Interdependent origination is how wondrous overall existence becomes over time. “Dependent origination is the explicability and coherence of the universe. Its emptiness is the fact that there is no more to it than that” (Jay L. Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, New York 1995). Now karma, as we see it, is our share of interdependent origination at the sentient level, including personal choices and responsibility – karma is, so to say, our stake in incessant pratityasamutpada, and what we feel and experience as good, right, wholesome, and beneficial, indeed as progress, is that which accords with the overall, otherwise indifferent, direction of existence becoming over time. The Taoist sage follows the Tao by imitating Nature – the Advayavadin understands the Noble Eightfold Path as nothing less than an ongoing reflexion at the human level, and in human terms, of the whole of existence becoming over time: the Advayavadin sees the Buddha as the prophet of existence as it truly is, as it truly is beyond our own commonly limited and biased personal experience of it.

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question Was it not Kierkegaard who said that one must be content to be a human being? Is this what Advayavada Buddhism strives after, to be pleased with being alive?

answer Yes, you might indeed put it that way. The Advayavadin is a happy Buddhist and he seeks the happiness of all other living beings. He is happy to be alive and he makes no bones about it. B.C. Law already tells us in his 1937 Concepts of Buddhism that duhkha or suffering is nowhere postulated in the Buddhist scriptures as a “permanent feature of reality” and is only “admitted and entertained as a possible contingency in life as it is generally lived”. He explains duhkha or suffering thus: “The problem of dukkha is essentially rooted in the feeling of discord or disparity. Birth, decay or death is not in itself dukkha. These are only a few contingencies in human experience which upset the expectations of men. From the point of view of mind, dukkha is just a vedana or feeling which is felt by the mind either in respect of the body or in respect of itself, and as a feeling, it is conditioned by certain circumstances. In the absence of these circumstances there is no possibility of its occurrence. Whether a person is affected by dukkha or not depends on the view he or she takes of things. If the course of common reality is that being once in life, one cannot escape either decay or death, and if the process of decay sets in or death actually takes place, there is no reason why that person should be subject to dukkha by trying to undo what cannot be undone. Thus dukkha is based upon misconstruction of the dhammata or law of things or their way of happening in life.” We do not agree, however, that duhkha is a feeling felt by a mind somehow separate from the body, as Law implies. Duhkha (existential suffering, i.e. to suffer existentially) and mind (i.e. to think) are simply both events: formally duhkha belongs to the vedana (sensations or feelings) cluster, and mind (to think) groups a number of events of the samskara (mental formational forces) cluster.

question What is, then, your understanding of duhkha?

answer The concept of duhkha or dukkha does not include, in Advayavada Buddhism, emotional grief nor physical pain. It refers solely to the existential suffering, angst and regret non-enlightened human beings are prone to. The enlightened person accepts with understanding and compassion the sorrow and pain which are part and parcel of human existence.

question How do we know about the world? Via the body, perception, sense consciousness and so on, all dependent on this embodied state. But how seldom our awareness rests within this body; how seldom the body and mind are at ease with themselves. We seldom think about our bodies; they are something given. When they work well and provide us with pleasure and happiness, we are satisfied with them and then ignore them. Only when they stop working properly, do we attend to them, and then only as a teacher to an errant pupil; we are angry and disappointed that they have failed us. We have a strangely ambivalent attitude to something so vital to us. It’s not like our relationship with a car; we can’t go out and hire or buy another one when it breaks down; yet we often treat our cars with more care and consideration.

We are born into this body, and when it dies, we die. But does one choose this body or decide its dimensions? Is one even able fully to control it? Can one choose when one wakes, goes to sleep, is ill, is healthy? No, most of what occurs with respect to the body is involuntary. We know, for example, that the body has various repair mechanisms, but it is very rare that we can set these in motion ourselves. Is this what we are, these arms, these legs, this head, eyes, teeth? With modern techniques, an awful lot of it can be made prosthetically. And so what are we? The bit that remains? The brain, two ears and so on? Or is this perhaps not how it is at all, not what we are at all? If the body were simply us, we would have a great deal more to say in the matter!

answer The lion’s share of our body’s activities is fortunately under the control of our peripheral nervous system, which includes the autonomic nervous system. ‘The sensory nerve fibres of the peripheral system carry impulses from e.g. the ear or the skin to the brain, and its motor nerve fibres carry impulses from the brain to e.g. our skeletal muscles. The autonomic nervous system comprises a sympathetic and a parasympathetic system which counterbalance each other. Together they run, for example, our heart rate and the flow of blood through our blood vessels, the contractions of our digestive tract, the ever-changing size of the pupil of the eye, the dilation and constriction of our bronchii, etc.’ We do not think that you would want to have a conscious say in these matters.

You will agree that these nervous systems carry out very complicated and, above all, indispensable and irreplaceable functions. But the relevant fact in the present context is that the systems are things (that belong to the rupa skandha) and what they carry out are not things but activities, processes (that belong to the arupa skandhas). A thing and what that thing does are not two things; they are a thing and an, its, activity or function, and an activity is an event, not a thing. It is for this same reason that Advayavada Buddhism stresses again and again that the mind is not a separate thing but one more function of the body; the mind is to think (and consciousness is to know) and to think is not a thing but an activity, a process, which is an event, not a thing. A mind that is in any way a thing separate from the body, and moreover carries out activities on its own and by itself, is an atman or pudgala, or a soul. To propound that such a thing exists, as you seem to do, contravenes the Buddha’s most basic anatman teaching.

Bearing in mind that the traditional khandhas or skandhas theory is but a very rudimentary presupposition of the actual physiological processes, earlier on we had this to say about the skandhas in this respect: The skandhas in fact do nothing – they are the doing. The cluster of physical existence is the rupa skandha. Also this cluster does nothing – it is physical existence in all its aspects. The four or so non-physical skandhas [traditionally sensations or feelings (vedana), perception (samjña, sañña), mental forces or formations (samskara, sankhara), and consciousness (vijñana, viññana)] are clusters or aggregates of functions, which are events – they denote how the rupa skandha is over time. The rupa skandha does not cause these events, it is them. Like when we say that a tree grows. The tree does not do the growing; it is the growing. This is how the tree is, how it exists in space and time. The growing of the tree is quite obviously an event, and not a thing, let alone a separate thing capable of in turn doing other things by itself. We owe the cohesion and activity of the rupa skandha to the spontaneous incessant dynamic principle of existence: the interdependent and conditioned co-arising or interdependent origination or universal dynamic relativity of all phenomena, called pratityasamutpada in Sanskrit.